How old are the Old Latin gospels?

In the second edition of his Introduction and Appendix (1896), B. F. Westcott (1825-1901) suggested a novel criterion to assess so-called external evidence, namely, that the convergence of the Old Latin manuscript 1 (k) with the recently-discovered Sinaitic Syriac palimpsest (sys) could signal a text form of greater antiquity than the combined witness of Codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus:

“The discovery of the Sinaitic MS of the Old Syriac raises the question whether the combination of the oldest types of the Syriac and Latin texts can outweigh the combination of the primary Greek texts. A careful examination of the passages in which syr.sin and k are arrayed against אB would point to the conclusion.”1

Christened a “methodological formula” by A. Vööbus and, rather dramatically, a “deathbed confession” by W. L. Petersen, Westcott’s “criterion” gained some acceptance, judging from the range of scholars who cited it.2 Yet we wonder whether — with F. J. A. Hort (1828-1892) no longer in the picture as a voice of restraint — Westcott’s remarks reflect a degree of sensationalism following Agnes Lewis’s recent discovery of the Sinaitic Syriac palimpsest in 1892.

No doubt a certain mystique surrounds the early versions. This aura of antiquity can be felt in their weighty titles, Vetus Latina and Vetus Syra. It is only enhanced by the abundance of free text forms they attest, thought to evoke the earliest stages of the New Testament text. Indeed, the Latin and Syriac versions are cited in support of a variety of seemingly ancient traditions, from the pericope adulterae to reports of a light or fire on the Jordan to a range of other traditions. Of course, since the attesting manuscripts tend to be much later than the period of interest, it is routinely noted that the dates of manuscripts matter less than the dates of the texts they contain, which of course may be several centuries older.

But how certain can we be that these particular texts as found in the Old Latin and Old Syriac gospels are very much older than their manuscripts? How reliable is the impression of age of their text forms? Can they somehow transport us behind the Greek tradition?

Examining the evidence, it is difficult to see how. Bobbiensis’s text likely dates to a generation or so before Cyprian, perhaps to the 230’s, as Tertullian betrays no knowledge of it.3 The Sinaitic Syriac text is difficult to date, but while perhaps influenced by earlier material seems itself not much earlier than the fourth century — not much earlier indeed than the Greek witnesses it is said possibly to preempt.4 And turning to the manuscripts themselves, we find in the case of the Old Latin that they date mainly to the fifth century:5

MS/Nr Name Contents Date Place
e 2 Palatinus Gospels V Italy
b 4 Veronensis Gospels Late V Italy
d 5 Bezae Cantabrigiensis Gospels,Acts c. 400 Berytus
ff2 8 Corbiensis Gospels V Italy
h 12 Claromontanus Matthew Late V Italy
n 16 Sangallense Gospels V Italy
i 17 Vindobonensis Luke,Mark Late V Italy
t 19 Bernense Mark Late V Italy (?)

Now at the end of the fourth century, the diversity of the Old Latin tradition is mentioned by more than one writer. Jerome writes in the 380’s:

“the Latin manuscripts of the Scriptures are proved to be faulty by the variations which all of them exhibit.”6

And again:

“We must confess that as we have it in our language it is marked by discrepancies, and now that the stream is distributed into different channels we must go back to the fountainhead [i.e. the Greek].”7

Writing about a decade later in 397, Augustine makes a similar observation, also conceding the priority of the Greek:

“As to the books of the New Testament, again, if any perplexity arises from the diversities of the Latin texts, we must of course yield to the Greek.”8

Augustine tries hard to cast these divergent translations in a positive light:

“the great number of the translators proves a very great assistance, if they are examined and discussed with a careful comparison of their texts.”9

But while Jerome was apparently content to make his own revisions (at least in the gospels), Augustine urges anyone with the requisite skills to correct texts:

“For those who are anxious to know, the Scriptures ought in the first place to use their skill in the correction of the texts, so that the uncorrected ones should give way to the corrected.”10

So as the fourth century drew to a close, we find a context in which various correctors are at work on the Old Latin texts, attempting to correct them to a Greek model.

Yet while Augustine and Jerome could at least agree that Latin texts should be corrected to the Greek, their opinion was by no means the consensus view. Ambrosiaster argues the contrarian position that it is rather the Old Latin that preserves the most ancient available text form, because, as he argues, it agrees with the earliest Christian writers in the Latin tradition:

“it is well-known that very long ago native Latin speakers translated the text we now have from ancient Greek codices, which the innocence of former times has safeguarded and now certifies to us without corruption. … For the text retained today in the Latin codices is found the same in the ancients, Tertullian, Victorinus, and Cyprian.”11

The picture emerges then of a tradition still in flux at the turn of the fifth century, whose text had lost the confidence of its readers, who at the same time sought to affirm its value through their corrections. But with no common criteria for “correcting” the text, the instability of the tradition as a whole could only have been increasing at this time. Given that most of our best witnesses to this tradition date from after this period of instability, we are left wondering how we are to distinguish between ancient traditions and recent corrections. But if this is so, how can these traditions offer us any useful glimpse behind the Greek text?